Organizers lay out the toughest event yet
My right hand is firmly grasped around the throttle of the BMW R1200GS, gently feeding just enough power to keep me moving forward along a track barely wider than my tires. To my immediate left is a steep drop, down which I dare not look to see just how far I’d fall were I to put a wheel wrong. The track follows the contours of a hillside so steep that the right foot peg sometimes scrapes along the wall-like ascent. Once in a while the right crash bar bunts a tree trunk, thrusting the bike to the left. Occasionally an overgrown tree root nudges at the front wheel, trying to coax it over the edge.
There are trees to stop me, I think as I duck to avoid being bopped on the helmet by a low-hanging branch. It seems that nature is telling me motorcycles don’t belong here. But I carry on in the 34-degree heat and humidity that feels like a sweltering sauna. Sweat pours over my eyebrows and burns into my eyes; several days of this heat and humidity have made the inside of my helmet smell like a bag of fermented socks. “It’s going to be fun,” we were told at the start.
No Love Lost
That was day six of the 2016 edition of the BMW GS Trophy, the toughest day in a week of extremely challenging riding. The day’s 10 km stretch of single-track trail took about an hour and a half to negotiate. Route organizer Tomm Wolf wasn’t kidding when he said at the beginning of the rally that we’d probably hate him by the end.
BMW hosted the first GS Trophy in Tunisia in 2008, and the biennial event has since travelled to South Africa, Chile, Western Canada and, this year, to northern Thailand. Each year the event gets larger and the routes get tougher.
Anyone who rides can qualify for the event by taking part in his respective country’s GS Challenge qualifiers, which in Canada were held in 2014 and 2015 in Ontario and Quebec. This year’s Team Canada members are Danick Cyr, a 40-year-old paramedic (a reassuring profession, I found) from St-Calixte, Que.; Scott McDonald, 40, who works as an auto technician in Regina; and Cory Villeneuve, 44, from Ottawa, who’s in insurance. All of them are highly skilled riders, each having proven his abilities by winning a GS Challenge.
Adding to the difficulty, two years ago the bigger, heavier R1200GS replaced the F800GS as the chosen rally bike. I had participated in the 2010 GS Trophy in South Africa, so I knew it was a challenging prospect, but this year’s pre-rally communications declared the 2016 edition in Thailand would be the toughest yet, with a slower pace, much more technical riding in high heat and daily routes varying in length from 140 to 280 km.
Road to Success
Having no intention of returning home from the Trophy in pieces, I began training as soon as I got the call to attend as Team Canada’s media guy from BMW Canada’s Rob Dexter two months before the start of the event. My daily regimen included cardio exercises, spinning on my bicycle and a revised diet that cut out a bunch of fat, gluten, sugars and other tasty stuff. It worked; I felt great and I had lost 12 pounds before leaving for the Trophy.
In all there were 57 competitors from 25 countries making up 19 teams, plus 19 journalists (one per team), as well as some VIPs, BMW media, medics and other staff. Oh, and there were two other Canadians present, handling marshalling duties: Brian Kiely and Patrick Horan, both of whom I’d previously ridden with when they were part of Team Canada during the 2010 GS Trophy. And for the first time in GS Trophy history, there was a women’s team.
Realistically, the weakest links in this travelling community of off-road riders were the members of the media, who… didn’t actually qualify for the event, but rather were selected for their storytelling abilities. Because of this, BMW scheduled two “media training days” ahead of the GS Trophy to both limber up rusty journalists (like me) and to see if they could, you know, actually ride. It was during the rainy and slippery second media day that rally organizers had determined that a few of the less skilled journalists would have to bypass the most difficult sections of the route (like day six’s single-track trail of torture). I wasn’t that lucky.
BMW prepared 114 bikes for this week-long adventure and equipped them with spoke wheels, a large skid plate, crash bars and other protective covers, as well as Metzeler Karoo 2 tires. The hosts also provided all participants with riding gear, and partnered with Marmot for tents, sleeping bags, various other camping trinkets and an equipment bag to carry it all. Unlike the press launches with which I’m accustomed, there were no fancy five-star resorts along this trek. And that was just dandy.
From the first day, our team’s natural running order was established: Cyr would ride first, followed by Villeneuve and McDonald, with me riding in the rear. That gave me a chance to see my teammates’ different riding styles: Cyr rode with brute force, handling the big GS like a motocrosser; McDonald was calculating and cautious but fast; while Villeneuve – the insurance guy – gassed first and asked questions later. Despite these different riding styles, the team gelled instantly and rode as if they’d been riding together for years.
California has nothing on twisty roads compared to Thailand. Main roads in northern Thailand are pristinely paved and smooth, with fast, flowing sweepers, while all other roads are either dirt or concrete, or were once paved, with only spotty patches of asphalt remaining. Or they are simply cow trails. And if you think the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina is twisty – all roads here are dragon’s tails! We learned quickly that Thai road engineers – whether they’re building highways or unpaved backcountry trails – don’t care much for taking the easy route through mountains, instead preferring the shortest route over the top. In other words, the roads are bestrewn with countless tight switchbacks. And they are steep. Very, very steep. So steep, in fact, that if you don’t stop parallel to the road, you’re almost sure to fall over.
We took paved roads for the liaison sections between the dirt trails, where we had to be wary of Thai drivers, who paid very little attention to the lines painted on the road, often taking the racing line through curves, moving entirely into the opposing lane. Of course, on the worst of the trails, where we’d be standing up, focused and doing our best Cyril Despres imitations, we’d often come upon locals riding 150 cc step-through motorbikes, sometimes three up – on bald tires.
The 2016 BMW Trophy was a week-long roller-coaster ride, with incredibly challenging off-road riding on the R1200GS that should have really been done on 250 cc enduro bikes. Magnifying my difficulty was a bike that initially struggled to find grip on steep, rocky uphills, wagging its tail wildly while other machines just climbed effortlessly and without drama. It took me three days and a severely worn rear tire to realize that maybe something was amiss. As it turned out, the rear tire had been inflated to 42 psi, double what the other bikes were running. A new rear tire was installed on day four, and the resulting improvement in handling made it seem as if I’d jumped onto an entirely new bike.
Teams encountered daily points-scoring special stages along the route. Some were physically demanding, such as carrying the bikes across a broken concrete bridge or over a 1.25 metre-tall tree stump; others tested riding skills, such as a timed race that zigzagged along a river, or actually riding in a river while trying to spot messages left on trees. There were even those that included skill-testing questions, and one GPS challenge tested navigational skills. The special stages culminated in a final test, a trials-type challenge on a motocross course that included several sharp hairpin turns, obstacles and steep climbs and descents. Team Canada rode hard and gave it their best shot, ultimately placing 14th overall.
This event was a gruelling test of rider and machine, neither of which suffered any casualties – well, except for one unfortunate GS that tumbled end over end at speed during the final test. Despite the bike being bent like a banana and missing most of its switchgear, its Chinese rider nonetheless picked it up and rode it to finish the course.
The 2016 GS Trophy ended all too soon, with competitors riding their bikes straight into their shipping crates! Team South Africa came out on top, with Team UK and Team Germany tied for second. The Canadians might not have taken home a trophy, but the memories and friendships they formed will last a lifetime.